We’ve all seen the memes:
“just another meeting that could have been an email”
“we are going to keep holding meetings until we figure out why we’re not getting any work done”
And we smirk because these taglines ring true. Leaders lament to me that they are losing the battle for attention. We all crave more energy and engagement on our calls, on our Zooms, in Teams, and in person, and the fastest way to get there is simple: laughter. If people are laughing, they are listening. The opposite of boring is funny.
Still, I get dismissed as unrealistic when I encourage professionals to find the funny. “Buddy, I’m 54 years old and have worked in Risk Management for 27 years. I’m not funny. The calls can’t be funny because we are talking about regulatory changes. We are talking about avoiding catastrophic fines. It’s not standup comedy at an ad agency.” But, if you need people to feel that urgency and if you are looking for behavioral changes, they must be listening to your content. And if you are boring, they are not.
So, should I tell jokes on my calls? Even with the prolific popularity of Dad Jokes, I vote NO (prove me wrong in the comments). The “funny” is found in observations and situations that are told as stories. The risk of telling a story is low. If you tell a story that turns out not funny, the audience will still feel more connected to you as the leader. Don’t worry; I am not trying to convince Alex from marketing to waste 20 minutes on your next call with a story about a group project they did in grad school. Stories that capture engagement are told in 90 seconds or less.
Self-deprecation works best when it stays related to work:
- I was so green when I started this role that on my first 2-day due-diligence trip, I checked my bag, and the team had to wait with me at baggage claim for 30 minutes.
- I love our feedback culture. It wasn’t until I transitioned to this team that I learned not to microwave fish at the office. For 8 years prior, I frequently microwaved fish, for breakfast.
- Many of you saw e-mails from me during the 4th quarter that vaguely referenced “sometime in January”. I guess that “sometime” is now here.
Self-deprecation does not work if it makes you seem like you don’t like your job:
- Sometimes I feel stressed about my job, but then I remember my salary.
- I spent my entire weekend reworking the proposal-just me, my laptop, and 3 bags of chocolate chips.
The best safe-for-work humor is rooted in positive observations or contrasting how it used to be with how much better it is now. It shows humility about the times you got it wrong and reminds others of the mistakes you’ve made. It is the blend of a smart but casual tone.
If you complain about the lack of engagement in your meetings, the first step is to ask: how did I contribute to this outcome? And secondly, where can you add some funny.